Literary Analysis: The Weak Defense, Defended Experientially

I've been duking it out with some friends who studied Rhetoric in graduate school. Knowing me as well as they do, they'll permit a little good-natured rant without hard feelings:

In my experience, people who go on to get Ph.D.s in Rhetoric tended to major in English in college. That means they read up to six or eight plays by Shakespeare, one book by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a few stories, one book by Jane Austen (maybe two), something by William Blake, something by a Russian (maybe), something by about two African American writers, and the Odyssey. Add to that whatever literary fetish they developed on their own time: if they loved Jane Austen, maybe they read four of her novels.

Five to seven years later, upon completing a graduate degree in Rhetoric (a field that diligently ignores narrative as if it is not a form of rhetoric), having read somewhere between a couple dozen and zero novels and poems since finishing college (Wrangler), they feel confident enough to ask the discipline of literary analysis (a field that happens to be about a hundred years longer in the tooth) to defend its very existence -- and they ask, albeit in a tone that could be mistaken for politeness, as if they have a thorough understanding of what the discipline of literary analysis involves.

The first thing it involves is reading literature. Rather than reading excerpts from Moby-Dick, for example, a person in the discipline of American Literature may read Typee, Mardi, Moby-Dick, Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, Battle-Pieces, Billy Budd, as well as multiple biographies, letters (to Hawthorne and others), and upwards of a hundred related critical books. That would probably earn someone a master's degree in the field. To get a Ph.D., you'll have to be familiar with Melville's own sources: that means reading Bible (for example, the story of King Ahab, Jonah-swallowed-by-a-whale, Paul's letters, etc.), Plato, Aristotle, and Gorgias, Plotinus, Tacitus, Thucydides, then Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, then Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Kant, Hume, Locke ("So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right."), Emmanuel Swedenborg, Cooper, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and an article about Melville's father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, who was a judge attending to a case related to the definition of insanity, and a margin-note in Melville's volume of Shakespeare taken (and altered) from Sir Francis Palgrave's 1823 article on the question of sanity.

And to rest on those laurels would indeed by a weak defense. To say, "Those things are inherently worth knowing, and sharing even some of that with our undergraduates cannot be anything but an overall benefit" -- to say that would be a weak defense.

So let me make one point. One single point. If you can understand this, you will understand why the process of reading literature and literary analysis has always been needed, and why it's not going away. I hope my point is not diminished by the fact that it is borrowed from Buddha's Diamond Sutra. After Buddha was preaching for a while,

Subhuti asked, “Lord, will there always be people who understand your message?”

Buddha answered, “Don’t doubt it, Subhuti! There will always be people who, hearing the message, will adhere to the precepts and practice our way. Our message will reach people simply because it is true! There will come a time when many will no longer need words, but will be beyond words. We must all strive to go beyond the words, because words can be clung to, and we should not cling to things. Understand that the words of the Buddha are like a raft built to cross a river: When its purpose is completed, it must be left behind if we are to travel further!

The discipline of literary analysis is precisely like that. It is like a raft. It is not "the Melville" that is important. It is not the fact that, to write about Melville, one needs to complete a deep education in the traditional liberal arts. The knowledge itself is "throwaway." The process --the actual doing -- of literary analysis is the teacher.

But here's the thing (almost done): this raft cannot be described. You cannot understand it by putting one foot on it while you're an undergraduate (i.e., by getting an English major). Its outcome cannot be described, cannot be analyzed, but must be experienced. Read Emily's poem just one... more... time: "Conversion of the Mind / Like Sanctifying in the Soul-- / Is witnessed-- not explained--"

This is a final defense. What I am arguing is that this path must be traversed to be understood, and you have not traversed it. There is no way to quantify it. Precisely like spiritual "enlightenment," it is for initiates only, and you are not initiated. You mock the modern (and ancient) notion of enlightenment without having the experience of enlightenment. You are like the cynic who proclaims that love does not exist before he experiences love for himself.

So back to the original question: why should literary analysis be taught in public universities? I take the Weak Defense of Arnold and Bloom: the study of literature is inherently valuable and good, and does produce better people. I know that because I, like Arnold and Bloom, have experienced its converting power. The fact that you have not experienced the "enlightenment" I'm talking about is only evidence, from my perspective, that undergraduate education probably should require more literary analysis (obviously, the little you got didn't do the trick).

In other words: We're on the other side of the river. You'll have to trust us in the same way that some of you trusted clergy when you were young. And if you don't, when you are the Deans, send us packing. That might make for an interesting scene.


Hypotyposis said...

Hi Casey,

Nice idea, but here's two problems I have with it: on the one hand, I know plenty of grad students in literature that could not care less, or even enjoy, literature. On the other hand, I know plenty of people outside of the humanities, and indeed a few outside of academia, who thoroughly enjoy literature.
Is the 'experience' you talk about reserved to a certain method, taught only within the ivory walls of academia? I think you'll probably agree that it isn't. But then, what remains that's so special about literary criticism? A certain rigour in analysis, maybe? But surely this can be conducted, again, outside of academia?

Casey said...

Possibly it can, Hypotyposis -- that seems to be the direction those outside the discipline are pushing...

And as you said, my guess is the literary criticism is not the only path to the "experience" I mentioned -- my borrowing from religious traditions to describe the experience suggests as much. However, I'm not convinced that professional-school (i.e., university education without the liberal arts) will provide the experience. Then again, as you sort of point out, I may be wrong about that -- I never lived that life.

But yeah, I definitely see what you're saying.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Extensive reading is not exclusive to literature. And while the history of "Literature" might extend further back than that of "Rhetoric and Composition," the history of rhetoric is a bit order than their departmental manifestations. In fact, it is the institutionality of both disciplines, which in both brick and mortar and ideological terms, steeped in Modern notions, that I suspect.

Casey--does it matter that I have an MA focusing on British Literature and Culture? That my work at Boston University focused on Jonathan Swift's later religious poetry, read through his personal correspondence, as a way of conceptualizing a resistance to the universalizing optimism of the Enlightenment?

Would it matter that I took 13 seminar style courses on literature as an undergraduate? That I wrote an undergraduate thesis focusing on sonnet variance in the early 20th century? That the focus of that thesis was on how modern sonneteers invigorated the form by playing on the reader's expectations (formal and graphic)? That my undergraduate education was at a private, liberal arts university that would make Bloom (either of them) weep?

I do not claim to be the "literary" expert you are. But to claim that I have not had this "experience" of which you speak is offensive, elitist, and exactly the kind of egoist orientation toward others (as unresponsive texts awaiting the light of your intelligence) that forces me to resist Literary Study in the first place. Check that--that lead me to transfer out of a PhD program in literature to a program in rhetoric. You have no idea what I have experienced. And yet, with a brazen confidence, you claim to. Yet, I have degrees in you discipline--I might not have mastery of it, but I have engaged in its scholarship and have read it. Suffice to say, I think I have experienced "Literature" more than you have experienced "Rhetoric and Composition." Fair?

That bothers me. That's what led me to postmodern theory. Its what led me to questions an era, and institutions, grounded upon certainty. And that's what leads me away from this discussion.

But I will try to end this cooperatively. What I believe I was saying over at Kristen's blog was that all of the humanities are being called into crisis given our economic woes. I wanted to read Taylor's essay in the NYT's as evidence of this. I believe Taylor's article corresponds to the question of metanarratives raised by Lyotard--and this question extends to all disciplines in the University. We will not be able to practice isolationist politics, nor fall back into a narrative of knowledge for knowledge's sake (two principles of Kant and Humboldt's University). This economic calling into question will not leave any of us alone.

I am not too concerned for rhetoric and composition, but the loss of the modernist metanarrative ain't no thing to us. But I am concerned for other disciplines in the humanities who will have to restate their values. And I don't think the kind of defense offered by Jago is going to be persuasive to those outside the churchyard, so to speak.

Casey said...

I really appreciate your response, Wrangler. The fact is, I am trying very hard to "push buttons." Let me try to explain why:

You asked, "Would it matter that I took 13 seminar style courses on literature as an undergraduate?..."

That is a critical question for me. And the fact is, it's a question that I can't answer for you. When I claim--brazenly, yes--to have some understanding that you do not, that's because you have told me quite explicitly more than one time that you dismiss the possibility of "enlightenment."

Now I agree: there are very likely more than one parths to this "experience" I keep talking about... indeed, it seems likely to me that Rhetoric can take a person "there." But all I know (again, by experience) is the path I have taken and the benefits of traversing the path.

But of course, I struggle to articulate what it is I've learned: the fact is, the reward of this path I've been on is ineffable, transcends language, and cannot be analyzed or explained. Now, if you told me that you, too, have had an ineffable incommunicable inexplicable experience as a result of studying either literature or Rhetoric, I would push this no further. Indeed, I would be excited to know that two very different paths can lead to the same... "consequence."

There should be no mistake here about my claims: I'm absolutely trying to avoid implying that I've read more than you -- it's obviously true that I haven't within the field of Rhetoric, and very probable that I haven't read as much as you in general. Nevertheless, (and this is the claim I'm making) my experience teaches me that certain avenues of reading (in combination with certain ways of living, probably) can lead to a fundamental change in the "soul" (I will not say "Mind" because I believe that the Mind is but a part of the human identity).

What I want this to come down to is this: I believe in "enlightenment" (or "salvation," or "gnosis," or the "hymn of dialectic") and you don't... and at that point we reach a cooperative stalement.

Again: I can't overstate how much I appreciate your engaging this question, because you're obviously dealing with an obnoxious, brazen, rhetor.

I'm going to keep writing along these lines, and I hope you'll follow the trail.

Casey said...

(BTW, Wrangler: if you have had the experience I'm talking around... by all means, share. I don't care if you call it "enlightenment" or whatever. But my impression is that, in exiting literature and opting for Rhetoric, you simply bounced to another edge of the dialectic. I know you don't believe it's possible to escape the dialectic, but Socrates and I do... and that's what I'm claiming I've done. And it would surprise me if you made a similar claim, though as I just said -- I'd be really interested in hearing it. But if you haven't had the experience, then what's so offensive about me saying so?)

EnthyAlias said...

If you had truly "bounced out of the dialectic" you wouldn't be having such a crisis right now, following my rather innocuous post on Jago's report.

I second Wrangler on your elitism. I would also like to qualify that not only have nearly all English majors had literary experience, but you are conflating religion with literature in a way that confounds the conversation.

Is your only measure of value in what we pursue - via rhetoric or literature - that transcendent moment akin to a gnostic religious experience? If so, how many other lit folks could claim the same thing? Your definition of enlightenment seems terribly narrow and exclusionary.

If religious experiences are real - and I know for you there are, regardless of chemical induction - they are personal experiences that again should not determine the operation of social institutions. Even churches don't know what to do with religious experiences and miracles except to weave them into the rhetoric of the churches own (economic) salvation.

Casey said...


How can I answer you in a way that you'll believe me? If I say, "I'm not having this crisis on my behalf," I am intelligent enough to know how you will react to such a claim.

You say I am conflating religion and literature in ways that confound the conversation, and that rings like music in my ears. What do I care whether my definition is anything like the rest of the literature professors?--isn't this the kind of "move" you and Wrangler and Lanham were asking for? I'm not justifying "Literary Analysis" as it currently exists. I'm changing it. For a long time I was convinced that what is generally understood to be "religion" was broken and dead--a weary superstition. Further, I was convinced that literary analysis had gone wrong sometime shortly after T.S. Eliot's work, work which I read as profoundly religious in nature (roughly). What I have discovered is that fusing the two "fields," Literature and Religion, redefines and reinvigorates both.

And ultimately, this is a copycat move: it's not as if Philosophy and Religion and Literature were strictly separate in the days of, say, Jesus (or Plato or Plotinus). You might enjoy skimming Peter Kingsley's recent book, Reality, on Parmenides, in which Kingsley shows that what was known then as Philosophy we could only recognize today as Religion. I'm suggesting that religion as we have known it is entirely bullshit, and in most cases, fully antithetical to what I am driving at. I'm also suggesting that the kind of refined New Criticism that served as the basis for most of our educations was the same kind of bullshit.

After saying all that, I will admit (off the record): it's a very good question whether "this stuff" belongs in university curricula. The Romans certainly didn't take to teaching "Christian" literature quickly or easily, and I won't expect American to welcome a relatively subversive confounding with open arms. If the Rhetoricians make it their life's work to expel this veiled pseudo-gnostic priesthood from their midst... well, at least I'll have some worthy adversaries.

Hypotyposis said...

Casey -your last comment clarifies (for me at least) what you were hinting at, but now I'm really not sure I understand your use of "soul" previously. If you're doing away with religion, surely you can do away with souls, no?

Casey said...

Absolutely, Hypotyposis -- consider that a vestigial usage. What word would you prefer there? I insist on using a word other than "Mind" because almost everyone understands "Mind" to occur between the ears and without necessarily involving the body... but what I'm talking about is physical as well as mental. And it isn't limited to the confines of the personal body, incidentally.